I don’t have a lot to say today in response to the fatal shooting at a Quebec mosque last night, or to all the evil policies coming out of the office of He Who Must Not Be Named in Washington. But somehow this Billy Bragg song (based on some words of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke) seemed appropriate. This song can be found on Billy’s brilliant album ‘Tooth and Nail‘.
In his little book about Matthew’s gospel Tom Wright tells of a movie he saw about the first test pilots to break the sound barrier; you may have seen the movie yourself. Until 1947, no plane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound, and many people didn’t believe that you could fly faster than the speed of sound. But eventually, in the movie, various test-pilots began to take their planes over the magic figure of 735 miles per hour, and over and over again bad things happened: in some cases the planes began to vibrate, the vibrations got bigger and bigger, and eventually the planes just disintegrated. Crash after crash took place. It seemed as if the controls just refused to work properly once the plane came up to the sound barrier.
But finally one test pilot, Chuck Yeager, had a hunch about what to do. His hunch was that when the plane broke the sound barrier the controls began to work backwards, so that pulling the stick up to make the plane climb sent it downwards instead. And so Yeager flew to the same speed, and instead of pulling the stick back, he pushed it forward. Normally that would cause the plane to dive, but his hunch turned out to be correct; the nose came up, and the plane flew on without damage, faster than anyone had ever flown before.
Apparently the movie is not historically accurate. Chuck Yeager was often asked whether he’d done it the way the movie showed, and he insisted it wasn’t like that at all. However, the story from the movie illustrates what Jesus is doing in our gospel reading this morning; it’s almost as if he’s taking the controls and making them work backwards. And the only explanation for that is that he thinks he is taking God’s people somewhere they have never been before – like a test pilot breaking the sound barrier for the first time. In the previous chapter Jesus has announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom has ushered in a radical new situation for the world; the old common-sense rules we thought were so sure are no longer so certain. And so in the Beatitudes, he says things that make no sense to us – things that completely contradict the common-sense view of the world. But we’re on the other side of the sound barrier now, and we’re face to face with a world of new possibilities.
The word ‘beatitude’ comes from the Latin word for ‘blessing’; in these verses Jesus describes eight situations or conditions of life, and pronounces a blessing on them. Likely there were people sitting in front of Jesus that day who fit into these various situations or conditions of life. They didn’t have it all together in their lives; they struggled with sins and weaknesses, and they needed to know that this did not exclude them from the kingdom of God.
The situation has not changed. The average Christian congregation may look pretty good on Sunday morning, but underneath that glittering image the reality is often not quite so shiny. There are people with good long term marriages and people whose marriages are full of pain, or have failed completely. There are dedicated people who give themselves to helping the poor and disadvantaged, but many of those people struggle with secret sins and temptations and they’d be frantic with fear if their fellow Christians found out about them. There are people who stand up and say the Creed on Sundays but inside struggle with doubts: ‘Did he really rise from the dead? Does he really care about me?’ There are strong assertive people, but also people who are timid and full of fear and wouldn’t dare to speak up for themselves. There are recovering alcoholics who aren’t really recovering; there are people with financial struggles who wonder why God doesn’t seem to provide for them. This is what the average congregation is like. Where in the world would such a mixed bunch of people find a welcome, if not in the Kingdom of God?
There are two things I want to say about the message of the Beatitudes this morning. The first is this: the Beatitudes assure us that everyone is welcome in God’s Kingdom.
In this part of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just begun his ministry in Galilee. He has announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God and has invited people to repent, believe in him and become his followers. He has chosen some people specifically, and the ones he has picked are not religious professionals but ordinary working class people, fishermen like James and John, Simon and Andrew. He has gone on a mission around the countryside, teaching, announcing the kingdom, and healing the sick. Remember that in Jesus’ day it was a common idea that if you got sick it was because you were a sinner. But Jesus didn’t condemn the sick; instead, he healed them.
Having done these things, Jesus then sat down and began to teach his disciples. As he taught, he could probably point to people in the crowd in front of him who fit into each of the categories he mentions. There are some tax collectors and prostitutes – the poor in spirit, the ones who’ve never given the godly life a second thought up ‘til now. There’s a woman whose son was murdered by Roman soldiers – she’s mourning and grieving. There’s someone whose greatest hunger is to do what God wants. There’s a meek person who never stands up for herself and is always being sat on by others. But what’s the good news? The good news is not that they have these particular characteristics. The good news is that all of these people are included in the kingdom of God anyway!
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (v.3). I’m sure you can think of a few of them; you may feel like one of them yourself. These people weren’t raised in godly homes. They never learned the Bible stories; if you asked them to turn to the book of Isaiah, they wouldn’t have a clue where to look for it. I think of a friend of mine in my last parish, a man who came to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. He has no standing in a church, little knowledge of the scriptures, and by his own admission he did a good job of messing things up for a major portion of his life. He was ‘poor in spirit’, but today he is sober and spends his life trying to get to know God better and serve God in AA. Jesus is saying ‘There are people like that in the kingdom’.
The kingdom also includes ‘those who mourn’ (v.4). Luke calls them ‘the weeping ones’: those who have buried their own children, or those whose spouses have deserted them for someone younger and more attractive; those who have lost friends or whose livelihood has been taken away from them. These people are going through awful grief, but nonetheless they have turned to Jesus as their king, and in his kingdom they will be comforted.
The kingdom includes ‘the meek’ (v.5); the shy ones, the ones who are easily intimidated and never stand up for their own rights. When a mechanic does bad work on their car, they aren’t brave enough to complain. When they come down for coffee after church and everyone is talking in little groups, they aren’t brave enough to move into one of the groups; they stand off by themselves, excluded from the conversations. But nonetheless they have been drawn into the kingdom, and Jesus is not going to exclude them. Far from it; Jesus says, ‘they will inherit the earth’.
The kingdom includes ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, as another translation puts it, ‘those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail (REB)’. Maybe they’ve gone through a time when they hungered and thirsted for bigger houses and fatter pay cheques, but they’ve gradually come to realize that none of this satisfies. So they’ve come to the place where the thing they long for more than anything else is for God’s will to be done in the world and in their own lives. People like this are often laughed at and excluded. People tell them to ‘lighten up’ and not take life so seriously. But Jesus does not exclude them; he takes their longing seriously, and promises them that ‘they will be filled’.
The kingdom includes ‘the merciful’ (v.7). The world’s version of this Beatitude runs “Unlucky are the merciful, for they will be taken advantage of”. Dallas Willard tells the story of how his parents went bankrupt and lost their clothing store in the 1930’s. Why? Because they would not refuse to give people clothes when they had no money to pay. That’s pretty poor business practice! People like that aren’t going to get credit from the banks unless they smarten up! But look – there they are in the circle around Jesus. They’ve turned to him, and he’s welcomed them into the kingdom. ‘They will receive mercy’.
The kingdom includes ‘the pure in heart’ (v.8). We tend to understand ‘purity’ in sexual terms, but there’s more to it than that. ‘Pure’ water is water that has nothing added to it. A pure person is a person who desires one thing: God’s will for them. They long to see God and know God, and their longing will be fulfilled.
The kingdom includes ‘the peacemakers’ (v.9). They often don’t feel very blessed – in fact, the common-sense version of this saying might be ‘Woe to the peacemakers, for they will be shot at from both sides’! Ask a policeman who tries to intervene in a domestic dispute, or a mediator who tries to bring labour and management together. Often the proposed solution pleases no one, and people’s frustrations are vented on the mediator. But there are peacemakers in the kingdom. They are called ‘blessed’ because they have put their trust in the Son of God who came to bring peace between God and people, and so they too are known as ‘children of God’.
The kingdom includes ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’, those who are reviled and slandered because they follow Jesus. They may be excluded by the group persecuting them, but they will be included in a much better group – the group of faithful prophets who have stood up for what is right in every age.
So this is the kingdom of God – a ragtag collection of saints and sinners, beginners and experienced disciples. The point is not that you have to be ‘poor in spirit’ for the rest of your life. The point, rather, is that being poor in spirit doesn’t disqualify you. Anyone can enter the kingdom if they are willing to give their allegiance to the King.
So everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God. But I said there were two things I wanted to say. The second seems to stand in contrast to the first: not only is everyone welcome, but also everyone is challenged in God’s kingdom.
The Sermon on the Mount is an incredibly inspiring statement about the Christian life, but the challenge of it can also reduce us to despair. And that’s why the Beatitudes are so important. Jesus started with the crowd in front of him as they were. Some of them had no knowledge of God’s law and had never been interested in living godly lives until now. Others had been hungering and thirsting for righteousness for years. There was room in the kingdom for all of them. But they weren’t blessed because of these characteristics; they were blessed because they were part of God’s Kingdom.
It’s been well said that ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are – but he loves us too much to leave us there’. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives us the balance between the two halves of that statement. You may have lived a life of notorious wickedness – or just an ordinary life of mild inoffensive selfishness – or you may have tried hard to be godly all your life. Which ever is true of you and me, we are welcome in the Kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we’re welcome to stay the way we are. The invitation is to ‘follow Jesus’ – and you can be sure that if we follow him he will lead us into a new way of life. That’s the challenge.
The Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. The good news in today’s passage is that there are no prerequisites to entering the school. You don’t need to have studied Old Testament Law 301 or Sinlessness 401 to enter. The only requirement is to register, and we do that in a very simple way laid out for us by Jesus: repent, believe in the Good News, begin to follow Jesus and, if we’re not already baptized, get baptized into union with him. If you’ve taken those steps, then you’re in; you are ‘blessed’ even now, in the midst of your struggles and weaknesses, and in the kingdom of God you will begin to find the answer to your deepest needs.
(Next week we’ll go on to consider some of the ‘lessons in the school of Jesus’ as we continue with Matthew 5:13-20).
I’m pleased to announce that Meadowvale is now available in the Kobo store (link here) (At the moment it does not appear to be available in the Chapters/Indigo store).
I’m pleased to announce that my novel ‘Meadowvale’, which has been featured in various versions on this blog over the past few years, is now available to purchase on Kindle.
I have been working on and off on this book for several years, so this is of course a dream come true for me.
The link to the book in the Canadian Amazon store is here.
Here it is at Amazon.com.
Here it is at Amazon.co.uk.
Please note that you can still read the first six chapters of Meadowvale for free on this blog. If you want to read more, you know what to do!
A famous tennis star of a previous generation was once asked the secret of his success. He replied “I only do one thing, and I don’t let anything distract me from it”.
I have no doubt that it was this sense of focus that took him to the top of his profession and made him the great tennis player that he was. But I can’t help wondering what it did to the rest of his life. How did his family and friends feel about being relegated to second place? What about his values, his health, and all the other areas of his life? It’s good to have a sense of focus, but surely it’s even better to focus on the right things.
I wonder what your focus is? What’s the main thing in your life? What’s the thing you’re prepared to make sacrifices for, the thing you wake up in the night thinking about? I once heard a person giving a talk about ‘Ideals’. He said something that’s stayed with me over the years: “Do you wonder what your personal ideal is? Ask yourself where your money, your thoughts, and your spare time go. That’s your ideal”.
Here’s another way of looking at it. If you could ask God for one thing, with the sure and certain knowledge that you would get it, what would it would be? Health for you and your family members? A million dollars? Long life?
Our psalm for today was Psalm 27. In this psalm the writer tells us what he asked of the Lord. Listen to these words from verse 4:
One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after;
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.
To the people of Israel, the temple, or ‘house of the Lord’, was the place above all where the Lord was present. If you wanted to be absolutely sure that you would meet God, the temple was the place to go. So we could translate the psalmist’s prayer as a request that he would always live in God’s presence. We might paraphrase it like this:
One thing I asked of you, Lord,
that will I seek after;
to live in your presence
all the days of my life,
to see your beauty,
and to know that I can always call on you for guidance.
I want to suggest to you this morning that this should be our greatest desire as Christians too – to seek God’s presence, and to submit to his guidance.
But why? Why should this be our greatest desire? What’s in it for us? And how would we go about achieving it?” Let’s think about each of these questions in turn. First, why should this be our greatest desire?
A few years ago in South America a small aircraft carrying a young American missionary couple was shot down by a fighter plane. It was a communication error, and the pilot of the plane and the young couple paid for the error with their lives. This is the kind of world we live in; our lives are shot through with grief and trouble. And that’s one of the main reasons for us to seek the presence of God. In verse 5 the psalmist says ‘For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble’.
But we have to be careful about this. It seems clear to me as I read Psalm 27 that the writer expected God to rescue him from the day of trouble. I think it was some sort of military trouble; perhaps he was facing an enemy army and the odds were stacked against him. Look at verses 5-6:
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
It seems pretty clear to me that the psalmist had prayed to God to rescue him from his enemies, and his prayer had been answered exactly as he had asked: he had won the battle, and his head had been lifted up above his enemies all around him. And isn’t it wonderful when that kind of thing happens? You’re facing major surgery and you ask God to bring you through it, and he does! You’re facing a family difficulty, and you ask God to help you sort it out, and pretty soon everyone’s happy again! You’re facing a financial crisis – maybe you’re afraid that you’ll lose your job – and the crisis is averted, you keep your job, and everything’s okay.
Those are wonderful times, and we thank God for them. But of course, we’re also painfully aware that God doesn’t always seem to give the answer we desire, and often we don’t know why that is. In the New Testament we read that Paul prayed for sick people to be healed, and many times they were! And yet he himself had some sort of illness – he calls it ‘his thorn in the flesh’ – and even though he prayed three times to be delivered from it, he was not delivered. ‘My grace is sufficient for you’, God said to him, ‘for power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9a). And Paul goes on to say,
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:9b-10).
So yes – God will hide us in his shelter in the day of trouble. Sometimes that ‘hiding’ will take the form of rescuing us from the trouble. Sometimes it will take the form of giving us the courage and strength we need to go through the trouble in the knowledge that God is by our side. We don’t always feel this in an obvious way; sometimes what happens is that after the trouble has passed we look back and think, “Wow, I never thought I’d make it through that! I guess Someone must have been looking out for me!”
I wonder what your ‘Day of Trouble’ is this morning? A debilitating disease that has unexpectedly invaded your life? The loss of a loved one? Disappointments and worries about your children? Loneliness? The fear of death?
Grief and difficulty, you see, aren’t interruptions of normal life; they are normal life. And we are not adequate to deal with these difficulties by ourselves. Only with God at the centre of our lives can we face these storms. And this is one of the main reasons why we seek God’s presence: without God, we haven’t got a chance.
“Well then”, we go on to ask, “What do we hope to gain from this? What’s in it for me?” On the face of it this seems like an irreverent question. It sounds as if we’re evaluating God as consumers rather than approaching him as lovers! And yet the writer of Psalm 27 isn’t shy about mentioning the benefits of living in God’s presence. Let me point out two of them for you.
The first is salvation. In verse 1 we read ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?’ To the Old Testament people, ‘salvation’ meant primarily being saved from your enemies. One reason why they were so afraid when they lost battles was that they thought it was a sign that God was angry with them! But for us Christians, salvation has a different focus: it means being saved from our greatest enemies: the power of sin and evil, especially the sin and evil in our own hearts.
A couple of weeks ago Marci and I were reading an excellent book by a man named Francis Spufford; it’s called Unapologetic, and the subtitle is Why, despite everything, Christianity still makes surprising emotional sense. The first chapter is about sin, but he makes the point that the word ‘sin’ has lost a lot of its meaning for us today: we associate it primarily with sex and chocolate! So he suggested a substitute phrase to make clear what we’re talking about. His substitute phrase includes a swear word that I’m not going to use in this pulpit, but I’m sure you can guess what it is if I call it ‘the Human Propensity to Mess Things Up!’ – or, in his shorthand, the ‘HPtFTu’ – that’s as close to the swear word as I’m going to go!
We all recognize this, don’t we? We have this uncanny ability to do the stupid thing, the selfish thing, the hurtful thing, over and over again! Most of us can look back on the path of our lives and see all the people we’ve managed to hurt along the way, and all the situations we’ve made worse, not better. This is what we need help with! This is what we need ‘salvation’ from.
A Christian man whose family life was in a shambles once went away for a weekend retreat at which he discovered the presence of God in a new way, and committed his life to Jesus. A few weeks after he returned from the retreat his son came into his room one evening and asked, “Dad, what happened to you? You’re completely different!” The man said “Well, I realized that I wasn’t making a very good job of my life, and someone told me that if I gave my life to Jesus he would help me to make a better job of it, so I did”. After a moment’s silence the boy said “Do you think I could give my life to Jesus too?” That’s the kind of thing we mean when we use the word ‘salvation’.
The second benefit the psalmist mentions is guidance in living. In verse 11 we read ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path’. We seek God, in other words, because we want to know the best way to live our lives. There are so many different theories and philosophies of life, but surely it’s wise to assume that God the Creator knows the best ones! And so seeking his face involves seeking his will and submitting to his guidance. This is not a sad and solemn thing. Rather, it means learning the way of life which will bring the greatest peace and contentment in our Creator’s world.
And really, why wouldn’t we want to do that? One of the phrases we’ve learned from the business world is “Your current system is perfectly designed to produce the results you’re getting!” Ouch! That hurts! Of course, it hides the fact that in many cases we haven’t intentionally designed our current system; we’ve arrived at it by accident, by a series of passive choices that we didn’t really think about. But now it’s our system, and it’s producing the results we’re getting.
So how’s our life system working? How’s our plan for daily living working for us? Is it producing positive, life-giving results, or is it only contributing to our Human Propensity to Mess Things Up? If we’re not satisfied with this, surely it makes sense to go to God and ask for wisdom to learn a better way. ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path’ (v.11). And this is exactly what we’re promised in Scripture. Psalm 119 says ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (v.105); in other words, God’s word will illuminate our life’s journey, guiding us about the direction we should take. And we Christians hear that word of God most clearly in Jesus. He says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
So we’ve seen the benefits of seeking God’s presence. There is the sheer joy of knowing and being connected with the Creator of the universe. Then there is the experience of salvation from sin, of having someone to turn to in times of trouble, and of being guided and taught the best way to live.
One last question: How do we achieve this desire of ours? Well, we can say for sure that it isn’t a matter of techniques or theories; it’s about our love for our Creator God. And again, as Christians we know that seeking God involves seeking Jesus. As Jesus himself said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
At the end of Psalm 27 the writer says ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord’. This is the heart of the matter. Be prepared to wait patiently until you get what you desire above all else. Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t be satisfied with cheap thrills and quick fixes. Go to God in prayer day by day; tell him that you want him above all else, that you’re willing to do anything he asks and go to any length if only you can have this blessing. That is the kind of focus that will delight the heart of God, and in time you will begin to notice his answer to that prayer. When that begins to happen, you won’t need me to give you seven proven techniques for getting closer to God. More and more, you will find yourself experiencing God’s presence in your own life, and all the blessings the psalmist speaks about here will be your blessings too.
Does that sound like one of those unrealistic easy answers? It isn’t meant to sound like that. Last week I mentioned Rowan Williams’ statement that prayer is a bit like birdwatching. Birdwatching requires masses of patience. Sometimes you sit for hours and see nothing; all you’re experiencing is getting wet from all the rain! A lot of people give up early, and so they don’t see anything interesting. I have to confess that I’ve often been one of those people; I’m not a patient birdwatcher. But those who are patient tell me that, if you’re in the right place and if you wait long enough, sooner or later something interesting will happen. There will be the hint of a song or the flash of colour, and suddenly you’ll find yourself looking at something beautiful.
Prayer is like that too. We may go for long periods of time without much sense of God’s presence. We may only be praying out of obedience, nothing more; we’re not experiencing much else. We may feel like birdwatchers, sitting in the rain seeing nothing!
Well, carry on sitting, and carry on waiting! The psalmist says again, ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord’ (v.14). The one who quits early will not see the flash of colour – they won’t catch that hint of the presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s the one who continues to pray, continues to wait quietly in God’s presence, and keeps on doing that, day after day, year after year – that’s the person who will find the sense of God’s presence growing on them, slowly, almost imperceptibly, until one day they wake up and realize that it’s become the permanent backdrop of their lives.
May that be true for all of us.
Let me close by repeating the paraphrase of verse 4 that I offered you a few minutes ago. Let’s make this our prayer:
One thing I ask of you, Lord,
that will I seek after;
to live in your presence
all the days of my life,
to see your beauty,
and to know that I can always call on you for guidance.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.
There have been a lot of people on Facebook recently sharing albums that shaped them when they were teenagers, which is quite interesting. I thought I’d also like to share my current ‘Top Twenty’ – in alphabetical order by artist surname, with the proviso that I will not let myself pick more than one album per artist. These albums are by the artists I currently play the most and consider essential to my musical well-being and inspiration.
- Nicola Benedetti: ‘Vaughan Williams/Taverner’
- Billy Bragg: ‘Tooth and Nail’
- Anne Briggs: ‘A Collection’
- Matthew Byrne: ‘Hearts and Heroes’
- Martin Carthy: ‘Martin Carthy’
- Bruce Cockburn: ‘Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws’
- Maria Dunn: ‘Gathering’
- James Findlay, Bella Hardy, Brian Peters & Lucy Ward: ‘The Liberty to Choose: A Selection of Songs from the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs’
- Genticorum: ‘La Bibournoise’
- Nic Jones: ‘Penguin Eggs’
- Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Philip Ledger: ‘Orlando Gibbons: Tudor Church Music’
- Mark Knopfler: ‘The Ragpicker’s Dream’
- London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis: ‘Handel’s Messiah’
- Maddy Prior: ‘Seven for Old England’
- Jean Ritchie & Doc Watson: ‘At Folk City’
- Red Tail Ring: ‘Mountain Shout’
- Stan Rogers: ‘Northwest Passage’
- Kate Rusby: ‘Ten’
- Martin Simpson: ‘Kind Letters’
- Sting: ‘Ten Summoner’s Tales’
Anyone else like to share their top twenty?
Because one should regularly return to the most magisterial versions of the great folk songs, I hereby post this morning Paul Brady’s classic 1977 take on ‘Arthur McBride’. Beautifully sung of course, and Paul’s flat picking here is extraordinary.
My two favourite moments in this video are (1) the delicious word ‘spalpeen’, and (2) the mischievous grin on Paul’s face at 5.54 when he sings the line ‘We obligingly asked if they wanted recruits’!
There’s an interesting discussion of the song at Mudcat Café here.